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Archive for the ‘RTW Trip’ Category

The difficult part about road tripping across New Zealand is that no matter how you plan your route, you have to cross the Cook Straight one way or another in order to get from one island to the other.  One option is to rent a car and return it on the same island, then catch a short flight, only to rent another car. We went with the other option, the Interislander Ferry.

The Interislander Ferry runs between Picton on the south island and Wellington on the north island. Before boarding the ship with our trusty Subaru and embarking on the passage, we spent a few days in Picton for Mike’s 27th birthday. We splurged on our accommodation and rented a self-contained cabin at the holiday park, which provided us with our very own kitchen and bathroom. After months of eating out in Asia, we have really been enjoying cooking our own meals lately, and for the birthday dinner we prepared some grilled New Zealand lamb chops and baby carrots in butter sauce. Yummy!

Picton’s claim to fame (besides the ferry port) is the labyrinth of waterways, peninsulas and islands that make up the Marlborough Sound. On a map of New Zealand, the region appears to take up a very small portion of the south island; when in fact, it has so many bays and fingers of land that it makes up 15,000km of shore, totaling more than 10% of the country’s total coast line. We spent one day driving the Queen Charlotte Drive and exploring the area. While we did get a few good views, the best way to experience the Marlborough Sound is on the water.

The cost of getting a car across the 22km stretch of ocean separating New Zealand’s two islands can be a bit steep, but it has its advantages too. Not only will many rental car companies offer great “relocation” specials for moving their vehicle between the two islands, but the cruise between Picton & Wellington is a memorable experience in and of itself. The ferry takes you through miles of narrow channels as it makes its way out of the Marlborough Sound; then, you cross the open water of the Cook Straight which allows you the rare opportunity to behold both islands at the same time, and finally you enter the grand Nicholson Bay and the harbor of Wellington. Total cruising time is about 3.5 hours, which means that there is also enough time to sip on a glass or two of champagne during the voyage and still be able to safely and legally drive your car off the ship.

With our time in New Zealand coming to an end, we knew that we could really only afford to spend one day checking out Wellington, so once back on dry land, we headed straight to our holiday park to cook-up some grub and rest for a full day of sightseeing. We hit the road early the next morning and headed straight for Mt. Victoria. We took our time hiking through the forest covered park and eventually made our way to the scenic viewpoint at the top, which overlooks the city and bay.  If you look closely at the pictures below, you will notice that whole city is encircled by parks and green spaces. These public lands are known as the “Town Belt” and were intentionally put into Wellington’s city plan to promote a healthier population and prevent sprawling development. While at the viewpoint, we noticed the expansive botanic gardens on the hill across town and decided to make that our afternoon destination.

Before venturing up to the gardens, we decided to stop in the city center for lunch and to walk along the harbor. Along the way, we encountered one of the funniest and most peculiar activities we have come across while traveling. We noticed over a hundred teenaged girls in their school uniforms accumulating around the harbor. We heard one of them say to another, “The water is going to be so cold.” Next thing we knew, all of the girls were shrieking loudly and running to form a line on the water’s edge. “One. Two. Three!” and they went jumping off the edge; wave upon wave of them plunging into the water. It was hilarious. We later found out that they attend an all-girls school that requires uniforms through grade 12, but in year 13 a uniform no longer needs to be worn. So a tradition has formed of jumping into the harbor donning the uniform on the very last day that it has to be worn.

After some good laughs, we headed back to the car and made our way to the botanic gardens for more time in the Town Belt. A sign posted on the greenhouse sparked our interest so we asked one of the gardeners about it. Turns out there was supposed to be a huge fireworks display the previous weekend, but it got postponed due to bad weather and was rescheduled for that night instead. More great luck for us! Our holiday park was located in Lower Hutt, a suburb just across the harbor from Wellington, making it the perfect place to watch the show. There were bonfires everywhere on the beach; almost a more incredible sight than the main firework display. After talking with some Kiwis we learned that the reason for the fireworks was a dude named Guy Fawkes. Guy was arrested on November 5th, 1605 while guarding explosives intended to assassinate King James I. From then forward, the people of Great Britain have been celebrating Guy’s failed attempt on the King’s life with bonfires and fireworks. As a British Commonwealth, New Zealand continues to celebrate this day, and we’re glad they do because it was a lot of fun.

Our visits to the port cities of Picton and Wellington, as well as the ferry ride itself, made us glad to have made the decision to drive rather than fly between the islands. We definitely recommend taking the Interislander Ferry if you have the time, and be sure to enjoy some bubbly along the way.

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A funny thing happens when you leave everything behind and take off around the globe. Regardless of how much money you save before leaving, when you pack up all your belongings into boxes and put them in storage (or leave them at your parent’s house like we did. Thanks again guys!) you essentially become homeless, for lack of a better word, and when push comes to shove will sleep wherever you have to; park benches, beaches, bus terminals and random couches have served us well. We ended our last post by saying that we woke up refreshed and ready to go after the night in Franz Josef. Truth be told, the evening soak in the spa wasn’t the only reason we woke up feeling good. We had intended to spend the night sleeping in the back of our Subaru because it was too cold for the tent, but the mountains surrounding the glaciers made the temperatures too chilling for even that to be feasible. The holiday park office was closed for the night meaning no possibility of upgrading to a cabin, so we sorted out our options and went with plan c: sleeping in the TV lounge. The little boy watching cartoons was less than pleased about us interrupting his late-night private screening of Looney Toons and quickly exited with a scowl. A soft sofa in a heated room beats a cold stiff car any day, and in a matter of minutes we fell fast asleep. We slept so well that our alarm clock didn’t wake us; the holiday park manager did. He was there bright and early, “goo’day ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to get up now. Let’s go. Guests will be waking soon, and this isn’t a sleeping room as I’m sure you’re well aware.” He was actually quite jovial about the whole thing, but we couldn’t help but feel a bit like bums being brushed from the sidewalk. In our defense, we had paid for a campsite (making us guests too) and the TV room didn’t have any closing hours posted. Anyway, we got a good night’s sleep in a safe cozy place and after some breakfast and coffee were ready to hit the highway and get our road trip back underway.

The west coast of New Zealand’s south island is the most remote place in the entire country. The crowds that cluster around the famous glaciers dissipate as you move north along the coast. Tall mountains, thick forests and rocky coasts made development of this region quite difficult. The towns are all very small and are few and far between, but like most of the island, the landscape is astonishing. We spent the morning hiking near Okarito Lagoon.

The nature reserves in this area are home to the endangered Kiwi bird from which New Zealanders get their nickname. Millennia ago, when the islands split from the ancient continent of ‘Gondwana’ land mammals and other predators had not yet evolved in the region making it a paradise for an endless array of bird species. Over time many of these birds, like the Kiwi, developed strange appearances and lost their ability to fly and became ground dwellers, but the arrival of humans and introduction of non-native species by European settlers has taken a devastating toll on many of these birds. On a lighter note, the Kiwis aren’t the only strange inhabitants of the area; isolation seems to have resulted in some very peculiar human residents as well. It is a bit tough to explain, but the citizens of the west coast definitely dance to the beat of their own drum. Something along the lines of the Beverly Hillbillies meets Jerry Springer show.

After our brief jaunt along the west coast, we made our way to the northwest coast of the south island to New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman. Although small, it certainly stands up to its competition. It is home to one of the country’s Great Walks, called the Coast Track, which is a 51km long trail that runs along the edge of the national park with incredible ocean views. We spent a few days camping on the beach and going on day walks along the Coast Track. The orange/red sand beaches, thick forests of fern trees and warmer rain-less weather made us think this is the place to be in New Zealand.

We got peeled out of the paradise that is Abel Tasman because of one of Amy’s big brothers, Aaron. Although not the most logical route, last week we drove straight through back to Christchurch, where we began our New Zealand adventure. Aaron is on his second year working with the U.S. Antarctic Program as a cook at the South Pole station and was being deployed from Christchurch. Naturally, we wanted to stop through town to see him! It was a fun two nights catching up over a couple of beers. He even let us be stowaways in his hotel room, adding to our list of unique places to rest our heads for the night. Although we’ve meet up with quite a few friends during our RTW trip, this was the first time we had seen any family in the past 9 months and it really felt good.

While Aaron was at training sessions, we made a day trip out to the Banks Peninsula, another amazing land formation in this country. The peninsula used to be a volcanic island but attached itself to the mainland after millions of years of erosion (check out a map, it’s pretty interesting). The town of Akaroa is situated on Akaroa Harbor which is the epicenter of the peninsula. From there, fingers jut out creating several bays. We took as many back roads as possible that day, putting ourselves in a few precarious situations on extremely narrow gravel roads. Amy even got chased down by a mama sheep while trying to photograph its two black lambs. Overall, it was one of our favorite scenic drives in New Zealand so far.

After saying farewell to Aaron and wishing him luck in Antarctic captivity for the next four months, we drove north to Kaikoura. While checking into a holiday park for the night, the receptionist asked if we were in town for the horse race. “What horse race?” we said. She informed us that it was the one day of the year when the local horse track got used for the Kaikoura Cup. Having never been to a proper horse race, we jumped on the opportunity. The sun was out, and so was the entire town of Kaikoura. It was a blast. There wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that comes with races like the Kentucky Derby, but the excitement, big hats and celebratory drinking were all there.

Kaikoura is known for its seals, and we definitely got our fix while in town. The day after the horse race we set out to hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, an 18km endeavor that took a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but was well worth the trip. We would say that as a rule of thumb, when visiting New Zealand, check out every peninsula you can. The views of the snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with the turquoise blue ocean were stunning, not to mention the incredibly adorable fur seals that lounge on the coastal rocks. The next day, on our trip out of town, we stopped at a trail head that was suggested to us by our Kiwi neighbor, Steve, at the holiday park. We took a short walk up to a waterfall and had one of the most marvelous wildlife encounters we’ve ever experienced. There were 14 fur seal pups playing and lounging in the pool of the waterfall. Apparently their moms lead them upstream and leave them for protection while they are out to hunt. The sight of tourists gawking over the seal pups was almost as entertaining to watch (click here to see a video we took of the seals).

We continued to make our way north along the ‘Classic NZ Wine Route’ until we reached Blenheim. The Marlborough region is world renowned for sauvignon blanc production, and Blenheim is the center of the action. We had our eye on a free campsite along the Wairau River, but first took our time wine tasting our way through the area. Neither of us are huge white wine drinkers, but if we had to choose one varietal, sauv blanc would be it. The crisp, grassiness of the NZ brands are beautiful. We, of course, had to stop at the famous Cloudy Bay for some tasting, and we were also happily surprised by a few other wine makers that we’d not heard of: Hans Herzog, Staete Landt & Yealands.

After we hit our 5 winery limit for the day we began to make our way to the campsite. Unfortunately, after about 30km of country roads, we came to a 4WD-only section that our Subaru just wouldn’t have made. While trying to decide on a new game plan, Mike noticed a sign that said ‘Pine Valley Hut.’ A hut? Way out here? We were curious so decided to hike the 40 minute trail in to see what it was all about. Maybe it was all the wine we’d tasted, maybe the sunny weather had gotten to our heads, but what we found was a gem of a place. We knew right away that we had to hike back out to grab our gear. It was such an awesome hut that we decided to stay for two nights. It had been quite a while since we’d gone two entire days without seeing another sole. It was a fun time making fires, swimming in the river, and hiking.

Thus far, our New Zealand road trip has proven to be a real treat. While hitting the highway daily sometimes make us feel a bit like vagabonds, every day away from home makes us realize that we all share one world. After nearly a year since moving out of our apartment, we have become accustomed to calling whatever hostel bed, campsite, hotel room, apartment or couch our home. It is funny how many times we will be tired from a day of exploring and say, “let’s go back home.” We know that one day in the not so distant future we will be heading home for real, but for now we are thrilled to be continuing this once in a lifetime expedition.

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3,800 kilometers on the odometer, way too many tanks of gas and countless hours of car-time later, we have a lot to catch up on.

The south island of New Zealand is a magical dreamland. No wonder they chose it for the setting of the Lord of the Rings movies. We realized a few days into our road trip that the little gold symbols in our road atlas marked filming locations; a nerd’s fantasy. Since our last post, we’ve made our way to the southernmost tip of the south island and are awaiting a ferry to the north. Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of sheep, visited glaciers, had a day at the horse track, hung out with Amy’s brother Aaron and made our way all the way up to Abel Tasman national park.

First up after our visit to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula was the Catlins. This area is super remote (i.e. there are more sheep than people, by about 3 times). The people that do live here talk funny and are genuinely surprised to meet people that want to visit New Zealand. We stopped off at the southernmost point of the south island to say we were there and it was worth the trip down miles of gravel roads to get there.

Next up? The Fiordlands. This area of New Zealand is famed as one of the most stunning scenic spots in the country. We believe these claims, however it was so rainy and overcast that we never got much of a chance to find out for ourselves. The town of Te Anau was our home base for exploring the greater area and well known Milford Sound. We were lucky to make it to the Sound at all because of a huge landslide (or landslip, as Kiwis call it) that destroyed the road a few days before we arrived. One afternoon, Highway 94 opened up and we made our way in and out within a window of a few hours. Homer Tunnel reminded us a lot of the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, but much more rudimentary, with rocky dynamite-blown walls and sparse lighting. Possibly more beautiful than the Sound itself, were the countless number of waterfalls that cascaded down thousand foot rock faces as we descended from the tunnel.

We would have loved to wait out the fog and gloom for a clearer day in the Fiordlands, but we heard this is very, very rare so continued on our way. During our drive towards Queenstown, adventure-sports capital of the eastern hemisphere, we saw an awesome steam locomotive that Amy was particularly keen on. It’s the random sights like an antique train rolling by that really make road trips fun. The highway that runs along Lake Wakatipu is unbelievably eye-catching. The snow-capped mountains sit right along the crystal clear lake that makes an S-shape with Queenstown at the apex of the bend. We spent one of our days in Queenstown hiking a mountain that is also home to the town’s newly built gondola. At points we’d wish we’d taken the easy way up, but the hike was more rewarding once we saw the view from the top. By the time we made it back down, we were ready for a less strenuous  activity and our arrival couldn’t have been more well timed. We lucked out and stumbled upon a jazz festival in the center of town; our favorite act was a fun and unique rendition by a jazz bad and  special percussionist playing along to a silent Charlie Chaplin film.

On our way out of town we stopped at Lake Wanaka for a day hike, another drop dead gorgeous place (we were soon realizing that this is the way most of the south island is). The path curved around the perimeter of the lake with stunning views of the mountains. It also happened to be the sunniest and warmest day of our visit in New Zealand so far. When we reached the end of the lake, we stopped for a few moments for some photos before heading back to the car. As we started our return journey, Amy asked “you still have the keys right?” Mike reached into his coat pockets, patted his pants and said, “oh shit!” At some point during the hike the keys had fallen out of his fleece, and despite meticulous backtracking, we were unable to find them. Eventually we accepted defeat and the fact that we would have to call the rental company to report the lost key and figure out our options. As the lady from the rental company was explaining the costly re-keying process, she paused mid-sentence, “I’ve just received a message. Looks like someone found the keys on the trail and turned them into the Edge Water Hotel.” What a relief. The BIG MAN must have been looking out for us that day!

With keys in hand, we proceeded north and yet again the views were simply ridiculous. If we haven’t mentioned it already, Amy is a huge fan of informational signs; along the way we learned that Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s deepest lake reaching depths of over 1000 feet. Despite being in a mountainous area, the bottom of lake actually sits below sea level. Kinda blows your mind, doesn’t it?

After a night of camping and cooking an amazing meal of lamb pasta over the open fire, we headed for two of the island’s most famous glaciers, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. It was ancient glaciers that carved the lakes of Queenstown and Wanaka. The hikes though rocky expansive valleys leading up to Fox and Franz Josef really help you appreciate the creative/destructive power of glacial movement.

Due to various safety risks, hiking on the glaciers is strictly regulated, so we enjoyed our view from a safe distance and made our way to the nearby holiday park. We were in luck; they had a fantastic hot tub, and there is nothing like warm soak on your feet and body after a chilling night of camping and a long day of hikes. The next morning we awoke feeling refreshed and again took to the road. We started writing this post with the intention of catching up on all our South Island adventures, but have come to realize that we have just seen too much here to put in one post. So, we’ll leave it at that for now and continue next time with our tales of the West Coast, Christchurch, Abel Tasman, Kaikoura and Marlborough.

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The weather looked pretty dismal as our flight touched down in Christchurch. We walked out of the airport into a freezing torrential downpour and realized pretty quickly that our first stop needed to be a shoe store. Sandals don’t quite cut it during early spring in New Zealand.

Our first stop wasn’t actually a shoe store because we had to pick up our rental car first. They say that driving a car is like riding a bike; once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget. Whoever “they” are, they obviously have never gone nine months without sitting behind the wheel and then rented a car in a place where you drive on the left side of the road. After accidentally hitting the windshield wipers instead of the blinker about 100 times and continually repeating “stay to the left, stay to the left” every time we made a turn, we successfully navigated our way to Kmart without causing a single accident and were able to procure our much needed shoes. We know that it isn’t well known for having the best shoes around, but our plan to camp and road trip around New Zealand for the next month meant that we needed to purchase quite a few things. Kmart is the perfect place to gear-up when you need cheap stuff that doesn’t have to last too long. In less than an hour, we had everything we needed to hit the road in the morning.

When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and the sun was shining for our long drive south to Dunedin. You’d think we’d never seen mountains before with the way we were ogling over the Southern Alps and taking a million photos from the moving car. While we loved living in Colorado, we always said that if there was a place with mountains like the Rockies and a turquoise blue sea, it would be heaven on earth. New Zealand must be that place. You can nearly see skiers coming down the white-capped mountains while you’re standing on the beach with a view of the endless blue ocean. We started discussing our plans to move here only two days into our visit.

To break up the nearly 400km drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, we made several stops along the way. The first was for a “Driver Reviver.” We think this is the coolest thing ever; free coffee at a rest stop and with a clever name to top it off. The next stop was a picnic lunch along the Rakaia River with gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains, and just before the longest bridge in New Zealand (yes, that’s right, our atlas told us so). Following lunch and a few hundred more kilometers, we broke off the highway at a town called Oamaru. It reminded us of Leadville, Colorado, but on the water. Just up the road is another quaint sea village called Moeraki, where the ancient Moeraki Boulders are located (basically, round orb-like stones on the beach where tourists take pictures).

By the time we made it to Dunedin the day was almost over, so we pulled into a holiday park where we set up camp. Holiday parks in New Zealand are similar to KOA Campgrounds in the US; mostly electrical RV sites with some space for tents (only crazy people like us stay in tents this time of year) and tons of facilities like kitchens, showers, hot tubs and computer rooms. Despite it being a more commercial camping experience than we’re accustomed to, we were stoked to be sleeping in a tent after a summer without any camping. At about 2am we realized what a terrible mistake we’d made. It was freezing cold and our 55˚F sleeping bags weren’t providing much comfort. Thankfully the rental company had upgraded us to a Subaru wagon, so we changed our plans a bit and have been sleeping in the back of the car instead of the tent.

We set out in the morning to explore the Otago Peninsula. It was a gorgeous drive along the main road that winds along the north coast all the way to the tip where there are stunning cliffs and an albatross center. On the way back we took dirt roads that led us to inlets and viewpoints where we saw no other cars. There are sheep farms everywhere, and being the time of year that it is, their coats are thick and almost ready to be sheered.

Our final day in Dunedin was spent exploring more of the country side. One of the greatest things about New Zealand is that you never have to drive far to get out of the city and into nature. The transition from buildings to open spaces happens quite quickly. Our first stop was a short hike down to some cool cliffs known as Tunnel Beach. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot only to find a sign posted which read “Closed for Lambing.” Many trails that we had encountered the day before had similar signs posted making it difficult to find a nice trail. Now don’t share this next part with anyone, but we did something naughty…we ignored the sign, climbed the fence, and hiked the trail anyway. Nothing like a little excitement to get the day started. For the record, we did not encounter any sheep or lambs along the way. What we did see was more majestic New Zealand landscape.

Having a car for the next few weeks is an exciting prospect. For months now, we have been relying on public transit to make our way around the world, but in New Zealand we will come and go as we please.  We don’t have a guidebook, but we did buy an awesome road atlas, so our days are sure to be filled with countless scenic lookouts and quirky informational plaques. Here’s to the open road!

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Walking Sydney

Walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge is one of the must do tourist activities when visiting the city. On our first day there, we set out to do just that. There are a few different ways to experience the bridge. Some fork out over two-hundred dollars to harness-up and climb to the bridge’s highest point. Others pay less to climb one of the towers, and then there are the backpackers like us who go for the free option and simply cross via the walking path.

Looking out over the Opera House and Sydney CBD.

The views from the bridge were great and the price couldn’t be beat. Along the way to the bridge, we ended up discovering that Sydney is a fantastic city for self-guided walking tours. We spent the next three days walking around town and seeing the sights, while trying not to go broke in this insanely expensive city.

Our first day started with a walk through Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens, which culminated with a view of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. We have grown up seeing pictures of the famous Opera House on TV and in magazines, so we had a clear image of it in our heads. Truth be told, it was actually a bit disenchanting to see it in person; sometimes the great sights of the world get so hyped up that when you actually get there, the thrill dies quickly. That being said, the Opera House did provided a spectacular backdrop for our picnic lunch in the nearby park.

Post-lunch pic

Skateboarder in front of the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park

We continued our walk around the harbor and through the bustling Circular Quay where numerous ferries come and go every few minutes. We even came across a street performer playing a didgeridoo like no other didgeridoo player we’ve ever heard. It fit into one of those typical Australian stereotypes, like seeing kangaroos, so we were quite pleased with that.

This guy broke it down on the didgeridoo!

Our second day in Sydney didn’t grace us with blue sunny skies as the first, but nonetheless we took off for a walk through Darling Harbor. It is a hub of activity in the city, with the Convention center, Aquarium, Maritime Museum and tons of walking paths.

View of Sydney’s Darling Harbor

Monorail cruising through Darling Harbor

Last but not least, we hopped a bus towards the ocean on our final day in town. The weather was unpredictable to say the least, but we put on our rain coats and took off for the 6km walk between Coogee Beach and Bondi Beach anyway. The winds were strong and the rain quite cold, but the walk was a lot of fun!

Strong gusts threatened to blow us over the cliffs. Seriously.

On the way from Coogee to Bondi Beach.

Despite our short time in Australia, Sydney is a city we are glad to have visited. It is the perfect place to begin or end your trip in this massive country, and spend a few days walking about.

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This post is about our visit to Western Australia, but the story begins many months ago…

Split, Croatia – April 2012

While riding a ferry to the island of Hvar, we were attempting to take a picture of ourselves when a guy came up to us and asked if we would like him to take our photo. We began to chat and told him about our RTW trip. Upon hearing about our plans to travel to Australia, he quickly replied, “Well, it’s lucky you met me then!” and said nothing further leaving an awkward moment of silence. Does he work for the Travel Channel? Does he want to offer us a book deal? Maybe he’s a local hotel owner with a discount? Curiosity swirled through our heads until he finally chimed in again telling us that his name was Juan and that he and his girlfriend Saskia were on a lengthy road trip around Europe. Despite having only known us for about 30 seconds, he offered to host us at their home in Perth, Australia. We exchanged information, but at that point didn’t think much of it. After all, who would fly to such a remote place to stay with complete strangers?

This is the fateful photo taken on the ferry in Croatia

Fast Forward 6 Months

We landed in Perth at 5am after a red-eye from Kuala Lumpur. Out of it from not sleeping on the flight, we walked out of customs to see Saskia’s smiling face saying “Welcome to Australia!” I guess we are the type of people who fly somewhere to stay with strangers, not complete strangers though, as we did spend one crazy fun night in Split with Juan and Saskia making our friendship about 12 hours old.

After a few hours at dinner in Split, we decided they weren’t axe murderers

As we exited the airport, we saw that they had the car packed up for a proper camping trip and even had a boat in tow. And so began our road trip adventure through Western Australia. Straight away, we headed north from Perth towards Gnaraloo Station, a 12 hour drive that allowed us to see some true Aussie outback. The road we took made its way along the west coast through barren desert, fields of wheat, white sand dunes and rust-red flatlands. Just about now you are probably thinking, did they see kangaroos? YES WE DID. Sadly, the first 20 were all road kill (apparently hitting a kangaroo isn’t at all uncommon when driving in the bush) but eventually we began to see groups of them hopping through the shrubs. We even saw some emus too!

By the time we arrived at Gnaraloo Station, the sun had already set. We unloaded the camp gear, and before we knew it the night was upon us and brilliant stars had filled the sky. Pardon the pun, but the stars of Western Australia are truly out of this world. We have seen our share of clear, starry nights in the Rocky Mountains, but these stars take the cake hands down. Between the drive and the stars, the feeling of remoteness was astonishingly wonderful.

We awoke in the morning to views of the Indian Ocean with humpback whales breaching just off the shore and headed to Gnaraloo Bay for some beach time and fishing. Over the last couple of months in SE Asia, we have become pretty good at beach-time but when it comes to fishing we both fall in the novice category. Juan on the other hand is an avid fisherman and was happy to show us the ropes. Over the next few days we spent countless hours soaking up sun, snorkeling, fishing on the boat and flying a really fun kite (that’s right, kites aren’t only for kids these days). Although Saskia pulled in more fish than the both of us combined, we did land a few good catches. It was the best fishing trip we have ever been on.

Eating fresh seafood is something that we always enjoy, but the experience of catching fish at sea and then cooking them up for dinner is tough to beat. Juan even caught a huge squid that we grilled up on the camp fire.

What time wasn’t spent at the beach was spent telling stories and making jokes while we sat around the fire and looked out over the dunes and sea. For the first time in ages, we didn’t turn on our computer or feel the need to be “connected.” After just four days of camping our new friends felt like people we had known for years.

The end of our camping trip did not, however, mean the end of our visit to WA. Juan and Saskia still had a few things planned. Along the way down to Perth, we made our way to the coastal town of Kalbarri for a night. To get there, we passed some blowholes that shot sea water up through circular holes in the stone creating a whistling noise and huge bursts of water. Then we made our way through Kalbarri National Park which is home to a deep gorge that cuts through the red stone and provides a refuge for lots of annoying flies. Finally, we drove into Kalbarri, a cute little town on the ocean, where Juan and Saskia had booked us an incredible B&B where we stayed the night.

After a delicious breakfast, we drove out for the last section of our road trip back to Perth. Along the way, we stopped at The Pinnacles, an area of land that has interesting rock formations jutting out of the dunes, which actually reminded us a lot of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia. We even got a little unexpected excitement from a flat tire when we pulled off a road to see Pink Lake. After snapping a few pics of the interesting pink color that is created by beta carotene and fixing the flat, we headed on our way.

Our Western Australia trip came to an end at Juan and Saskia’s place, where we enjoyed a few more laughs and some tasty Jamie Oliver hamburgers. It is amazing how quickly a week can go by when you spend it with great company, exploring new places. The coast of Western Australia is amongst the most isolated places in the entire world, and were it not for that chance encounter on the ferry in Croatia, we probably never would have seen it. Turns out that Juan was absolutely correct; it was very lucky that we met him, because it lead to an unforgettable Australian experience and two new friends for life.

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Despite the many posts that we have made about our RTW trip thus far, there is always so much more to share. Deciding what to write about and what to skip is a constant debate for us, and we are sure that many other travel bloggers encounter the same dilemma. Sometimes we leave stories out because you simply had to be there to get it; other times we choose not to write about a destination because we can’t find the right approach; and then there are the instances where we choose not to write because we’ve been posting so much that we don’t want to overwhelm our readers (or ourselves). The story of our week in Beijing falls into all three of these categories and will be the first in a new series of posts called “Travel Throwbacks” that will include tales of destinations, strange encounters, and of course many photos from past adventures that we have not yet shared on our blog.

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We arrived in Beijing in May via high-speed train from Shanghai.Riding a long distance train in China (or any form of public transit for that matter) is always quite an experience, and this journey was no exception. The landscape between Shanghai and Beijing is barren and dry, almost reminiscent of Nevada in places. As we sped along the tracks, cities began to appear in the distance. Generally the term “ghost town” is used to describe cities that once were, but these ghost towns are cities yet to be. Huge boulevards, sky scrapers, and massive housing complexes sat complete but empty, still waiting for inhabitants. No doubt these cities are meant to help handle China’s enormous population and rapidly growing middle class, as well as to keep unemployment at bay, but it was a strange and eerie sight none the less.

Image Credits: http://financialpostbusiness.files.wordpress.com (top right), Michael Christopher Brown/TIME Magazine (bottom center)

Once inside the city, it became apparent that Beijing is China’s tourism hot spot for a reason – there are soooooooo many things to see. The city attracts not only foreigners, but an immeasurable number  domestic tourists each year. The main attractions are The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China, but the list also includes the 2008 Olympic Green, Tiananmen Square, the Imperial Summer & Winter Palaces, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, the list goes on and on. Certainly we did not see everything in Beijing, but we think we made a pretty good run at it. So prepare yourself for a very long read…

The Forbidden City

This is probably Beijing’s most well-known and sought-after historical sight. Based on advice from fellow travelers, we showed up an hour before the ticket office opened in an attempt to beat the crowds, but lines had already formed. While we were thankful to be amongst the first to enter the city’s walls, we were still amazed by the sheer number of people flooding through the gates. Although The Forbidden City has been open to tourists for some time, some parts still are forbidden. We were frustrated by the red tape and barriers, but happy to find an amazing view of the entire complex from the hill of Jingshan Park. The walled city is so expansive that you need a panoramic lens to fit it all in one picture.

Tiananmen Square

Situated across the street from The Forbidden City is the famous Tiananmen Square, as well as Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. It felt surreal to walk through Tiananmen Square. We grew up knowing the story of the deadly protest that took place there in 1989, and were moved to experience the surroundings ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the square is heavily guarded by Chinese military. Unlike most public squares in the world, gathering and loitering here are not encouraged. You have to go through metal detectors and security just to enter the square. There are no benches where you can sit. If you stand in one place for too long, you’ll be told to move along. Yet, there is also a massive electronic display that continually plays propaganda films of a prosperous China with happy people and unspoiled nature. Interesting to say the least.

At the far end of the Square, opposite the Forbidden City, sits Mao’s Mausoleum. If you do not know who Chairman Mao Zedong is, please stop for a moment to find out here. Mao’s body is open to the public for viewing most mornings, and we were interested to take a look. It was quite the experience! We stood in the long, winding line for nearly an hour and, after going through metal detectors, we entered the building. The Chinese people treat this as a religious experience. There are no photographs allowed, no talking, and one must not stop walking. The body itself looks fake, like a perfect wax replica. Perhaps it is, we will never know.

Olympic Green

We took a day off from exploring Beijing’s ancient sites and rode the subway to the Olympic Green. It was fun to see the buildings in person that created such a world-wide frenzy during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was also exciting to be there just months before the 2012 Games began. The first thing that we noticed was the fact that acres of land must have been flattened in order to open up room for this massive pavilion; we could only imagine the masses of people that roamed the land four years ago. The Water Cube is a true architectural wonder. Its luminescent bubble-like structure make you feel as if you’re swimming in a bath. As we walked away from the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest, we noticed that the Olympic Green sits on a straight axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which you can see on a clear day (we were lucky as this is rare in the often dusty city). Overall, visiting Beijing’s Olympic Green made us want to attend the Olympics someday. It has officially been added to our bucket list.

Temple of Heaven

Yet another example of Beijing’s very ancient cultural heritage is the Temple of Heaven.  Located in the southeastern part of the city, this temple complex dates back to the early 1400s and was used for religious ceremonies.  Its primary purpose was to serve as the site for an annual sacrificial offering to heaven asking for a plenty harvest. Rightfully so, the main attraction is an enormous, three-tiered, circular structure known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. An interesting and somewhat comical bit of history that we came across was a small wooden called the Seventy Year Old Door. The story goes that at the age of 70, Emperor Qianlong was in poor health and had a small doorway cut into a temple wall to shorten his walk to the offering sight. He feared that the new door would cause his decedents to become lazy, so he made a royal decree that only those who had reached the age of 70 should be permitted to pass through the doorway.

Surrounding the temple are a series of gardens which are a popular weekend getaway for locals seeking a bit of refuge from the chaos of Beijing’s streets. Families pack picnics and spend all day lounging in the shade, listening to music, playing games and dancing in the squares.

Summer & Winter Palaces

While The Forbidden City is the most iconic Imperial Palace, it is not the only royal residence to be found in Beijing. Trust us when we say that the Summer and Winter Palaces are not too shabby either.  They may not have the labyrinths of rooms, courtyards and corridors that The Forbidden City does, but boy oh boy are they stunning!  The Summer Palace is situated outside of the city center and the grounds contain two substantially sized lakes. There are numerous temples, galleries and reception halls speckled amongst rocky hills, small rivers, cool woods and green lawns. It isn’t hard to imagine why the emperors and their families enjoyed spending the hot summer days in this little slice of paradise.  The grounds of the Winter Palace, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller (probably because not too many people enjoy leisurely strolls in the freezing cold) and are located right in the heart of Beijing.

The Night Market

Aside from its many tourist attractions, Beijing is also know for a unique characteristic that has been dubbed “hutong culture.” Branching off of the main streets are a maze of small alleys and walkways. Some of the best food and hang out spots can be found in the most conspicuous locations. If you are seeking a taste of the wild side, but aren’t a fan of wandering around in places that aren’t on any tourist maps, then we suggest checking out the night market instead. As is the case with many international cities, Beijing has a happening night market with an entire section dedicated to quick eats. Beijing’s market in particular definitely offers some things that you won’t find anywhere else.  Case in point: skewered scorpions! It took us a few minutes to work up the nerve to give it a go, but eventually we did manage to stomach four scorpions each. Scorpions may be dangerous, but they had better remember who is really on top of the food chain.

Lastly, no trip to Beijing is complete with a day spent on The Great Wall. Just after our visit, we dedicated an entire post to our day of hiking there, which you can read here. We think you’ve probably read enough for the day, so we’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

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It’s hard to believe that our time in Asia has drawn to a close. 5 months in 9 countries and we’ve only barely scraped the surface of this enormous continent. In many ways, Asia really stretched us beyond our comfort zone. We became comfortable communicating using improvised sign language with people who spoke no English, tried foods we never knew existed, learned how to SCUBA dive, perfected our chopstick skills, witnessed extreme gaps between wealth & poverty, met new friends & reconnected with old ones, rode on elephants, played with tigers & fended off monkeys, learned how to use eastern toilets, climbed the Great Wall of China, visited schools in Korea & Japan, rode a Shinkansen bullet train, explored ancient ruins, learned how to drive motorbikes (on the left side of the road), went to a Muay Thai match, and survived the most terrifying yet beautiful bus ride of our lives.

While we have seen and done a lot, we are already talking about our next trip to Asia. When that will be, who knows? But when we do return it will be with a sense of pure excitement and anticipation. We have truly come to appreciate that the blanket term “Asian” as in “Asian food” that is often used at home is really a very poor descriptor. The diversity of cultures, foods, languages, religions and geography of this continent is simply astounding. This time around, we stuck to the eastern side of the region, but western China, Nepal, Russia, “the ‘stans”, India, Burma, Bangladesh and Indonesia are ranking high on our list of places to visit next time around.

Now we have departed on a new phase of our journey: 6 weeks in Australia and New Zealand. Looking back on our first continent jump, from Europe to Asia, we were both a bit apprehensive and anxious. We were ready for more excitement and the uncertainty that Asia would bring, but we were also nervous about visiting a region of our world that was so foreign to us. On the surface, this continent jump may appear to be an easier adjustment, as we will be returning to “western” customs and the English speaking world; however, it is often said that going back to what you know after being abroad can actually be the greatest culture shock of all.

As a recap of the past 5 months, below are 5 of our favorite blogs from our time in Asia. If you have some time on your hands, you can read all of our posts about Asia by clicking here.

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As a nation, Malaysia boasts one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world, so it is no big surprise that our trip to the city of Melaka overlapped with Malaysia Day, a national holiday to commemorate the country’s formation. As usual, we had no idea of this before we arrived. Luckily we had booked a hostel in advance based on the recommendation of a bartender on Tioman Island, so we were all set to battle the crowds when we arrived. And were there ever crowds! Since Melaka is less than a two hour drive south of Kuala Lumpur, many people from KL made the short journey for the holiday weekend. The celebration was in full swing, with live music, fireworks and food filled streets.

Malaysia is a very young country, only celebrating their 55th birthday on this past Malaysia Day. As a port city, Melaka is a good representation of Malaysia’s long history of foreign control and struggle for independence. The city was captured by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, taken by the Dutch in the 1600s, then fell to the British in 1824. All of these nations exploited their military power to seize and utilize the port of Melaka as a major trading station. During WWII, Melaka was even occupied by Japanese before finally be liberated in 1948 to rejoin the current day nation of Malaysia.

These historic factors, including the heavy immigration of Indian and Chinese populations, make the food scene in Melaka a diverse and delicious endeavor. Its been awhile since we made food the main focus of one of our posts, but our passion for it hasn’t gone anywhere. We spent a good amount of time exploring the street food scene and local restaurants. One of our favorite dishes, roti canai, is an Indian style flat bread that is served with curry and/or chickpea dipping sauce. At only 1.60RM (or about 50 cents USD) it cannot be beat.

Based on a recommendation from the owner of our hostel, we headed out one night to try Capitol Satay, a famous restaurant in Melaka where you cook skewers of veggies and meat in a bubbling vat of peanut sauce at your table. We arrived to a “closed” sign, perhaps because of the holiday, and were quite disappointed; luckily, we noticed that the entire street is full of knock-off skewer restaurants imitating their renowned neighbor. We found a suitable alternative and decided to give it a shot. To put it plainly, the meal was cheap, fun and delicious.

The food stalls at the weekend night market on the popular Jonker Street are a good representation of Melaka’s melting pot. Everything from chicken rice, poh piah, potatoes on a stick, grilled seafood, stir-fried radish cakes, sushi, noodle bowls, sweet iced drinks like soya milk and hibiscus tea, dumplings, sago gula Melaka, shaved ice, and so much more are available.

Aside from chowing on food all day long, we managed to get ourselves out for a bit of sightseeing as well. As is evidenced by the multi-cultural food scene, the presence of diverse religions is also clear. In one block you can walk by an ancient Buddhist temple, a mosque, and a Christian church. One day when we were walking through the Dutch Square, we decided why not go inside the Church of Melaka? While the architecture wasn’t particularly impressive, there seemed to be a service about to begin so we grabbed a couple hymn books and sat down to join. After reading through a few pages, Mike looks up and says “Is this a memorial service?” It sure was, and next thing we know a casket is being wheeled in through the front door. It was an awkward moment to say the least, but we managed to squeeze out the side door before anyone could ask us to share a memory about the deceased. Phew, that was a close one.

After celebrating Malaysia Day and grubbing our way through Melaka, we were faced with the choice of how to best fill our two weeks of time before catching our October 2nd flight to Perth. Two weeks is certainly enough time to explore some of Malaysia’s great national parks and the well-known Cameron Highlands, but we realized that after 8 months on the road, we had hit a bit of a wall; we were not tired of traveling, we were tired from traveling. There was only one solution that we could see, so we did what any reasonable person would have done…We found another great island and decided to spend the remainder of our days here basking in the sun.

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The snoring began at 11:57pm on Tuesday September 18th on a night bus from Melaka to Kota Bharu. 40 minutes into the hurricane of noise coming from the seat behind me, I decided to whip out the computer and write this…

The guy on my bus right now clearly has a terrible case of sleep apnea, causing him to inhale massive gulps of air through his mouth, nostrils and what seems like many other holes on his face. I am seriously in fear that he might suck up all of the oxygen on this bus, leaving the rest of us dead. But that may actually be a nice reprieve. He is a true sasquatch, as I’ve come to call them. Just being a snorer does not make you a sasquatch. One crosses the line into sasquatch-dom when at least 5 different noises are produced while snoring.

I mean, how is Mike sleeping through this? I am in awe that those ear plugs are doing any good.

No clue how he does this

Me on the other hand, I am not so enthused. My thought right now: why the hell are we going to the Perhentian Islands anyway?

Me being really pissed off

My disdain for snorers started long ago, and has grown to a deep seated hatred over the course of this RTW trip. Let me share a few of the stories to help you understand why.

Zagreb, Croatia – March 28th, 2012. After taking the train in from Budapest, Mike and I stopped for the night in Zagreb before making the long haul down to Split early in the morning. We met one of our dorm mates, a nice college girl from the States, and enjoyed a fantastic Croatian/Italian feast up the street from our hostel. We climbed into bed, a few glasses of wine in us, and fell asleep rather quickly. After a few hours, *slam* goes the door, *sound of rustling clothing*, feet up the ladder, and BAM the most intense snoring I have ever heard begins faster than you can say fuck. I swing my head off the top bunk and say to Mike, “Oh my god, I’m going to kill those 2 guys!” and Mike’s like “What 2 guys?” I could not believe my ears, but that horrible sound was seriously only coming out of one person. It didn’t take long before my anger was boiling so high that we relocated ourselves to the couches in the common room.

The best couch bed in the world

Istanbul, Turkey – April 11th, 2012. We checked into our hostel, a lovely and clean place right in the heart of Sultanahmet, just a few blocks from the world famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. After an awesome day of sightseeing, we came back, showered up, and plopped ourselves into bed. After some time, a fellow dorm mate arrives and starts up snoring louder than I have ever heard in my life. This guy takes the cake by 255% over “man who sounds like two” from Zagreb. Unfortunately this hostel’s common area locked at midnight, so there was nowhere for us to go. I walked out in the lobby to sit and let my anger fester a bit, which prompted some questions from the front desk guy. I explained the situation. He said “just wake him up or stuff a dirty sock in his mouth; I used to do it all the time back when I was in the army.” Never before in my life did I imagine that I would shake a stranger awake for snoring…but, I did. And so did Mike. And so did another bunk mate. We shook this guy awake over and over and over and over and over again and he just kept at it. Snoring like mad. No one in our 12 person dorm room could sleep. Mike even resorted to taking a sleeping pill. Finally, after a few hours, I went back to my friend and the front desk and begged him to let us sleep in the lobby. He wouldn’t let us sleep on the couch, but agreed to something even better; we finally got some solace in another dorm room.

Tokyo, Japan – June 19th, 2012. One night Mike must have figured, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The previous night we’d discovered that we not only had a snorer in our dorm room, but a sleep talker as well, a very boisterous and animated sleep talker at that. In an effort to help ourselves sleep a bit more heavily on our second night in Tokyo, we shared some beverages with a few Aussies at our hostel. They must have done the job for Mike more than me, because he was out like a light as soon as his head hit the pillow. Soon enough sleep talker starts up. And not too long after a new arrival has added in his snores. Next thing I know, Mike has joined the crew too, and I had a god damn snoring/sleep babbling symphony on my hands. If you think snoring is bad, you don’t know anything until you’re in a room with 3 of them!

So there you have it, a brief history of my hate for snorers. Although, I will admit that I’ve had an epiphany on this bus ride tonight.

There is nothing I can do about said snorers, other than physically remove myself from the situation (although not really possible in this particular instance on the bus, I did consider throwing myself out the bus when sasquatch started up a few hours ago). Anyway, if I can’t control the situation, why not just laugh about it? People who willingly put themselves into a dorm room of strangers, knowing full well that everyone will hate them for snoring, are buffoons and buffoons deserve to be made fun of. After nine months on the road, and many encounters with snorers, I have finally learned that to remedy my hatred, all I have to do is laugh.

-Amy

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